Friday May 29, 1998
At the beginning of "Arguing the World," a lively, incisive account of four of America's leading thinkers of the 20th century, documentarian Joseph Dorman tells us that when the quartet began arguing radical politics at the City College of New York, "they discovered the world, and through the power of their ideas they hoped to change it."
They are eminent sociologist Nathan Glazer; political essayist Irving Kristol, a key intellectual architect of the Reagan and Gingrich "revolutions"; Irving Howe, literary critic and leading voice of the left, a loyalist to the socialist ideal all four once embraced; and social theorist Daniel Bell, a man of the liberal center. Dorman has framed his group portrait with crisp commentary from colleagues and a treasure trove of largely unfamiliar archival footage, which brings alive an ever-changing New York over a period of some 65 years.
"May you live in interesting times," the famous Chinese saying, applies with full force to these men, all of them New York Jews from poor immigrant families who were coming of age in the late '30s. The combination of the impact of the Great Depression, the rise of fascism in Europe and what Kristol calls "the historical consciousness" they learned at their families' kitchen tables attracted them to the socialist movement of Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas.
At City College, the institution for higher learning for the city's "brightest poor," these four and many others gathered in the school cafeteria at Alcove 1, a haven for anti-Stalinists. (Alcove 2 was reserved for Stalinists--those who "read palookas like Howard Fast," huffs Howe. There's another alcove for jocks and so forth--an instance, perhaps, of interior design as destiny?)
With admirable clarity and comprehensiveness, Dorman traces how these four grappled with the great issues and events of their lives. Like most Americans of their generation, three of the four served in the war effort--Kristol and Bell were sent to Europe, and Howe to Alaska (which gave him much crucial time for reading and thinking). Glazer, several years younger than the others, was still a student.
The postwar years found them condemning both Soviet-style communism and the deplorable excesses of the anti-communist congressional hearings while attempting to defend leftist views and liberal causes. Through the Partisan Review and many other journals that the men became involved in, they began to deal with the arts as well as politics, while writing their landmark books and becoming university professors. In a 1968 essay, Howe came up with the phrase "New York intellectuals" to describe his group, which constituted some 60 people spanning several generations.
By then, however, these four titans, who had gradually moved to the center, except for Howe, had come to a bitter clash with the anti-Vietnam War protest generation. Glazer arrived at Berkeley just in time to confront the Right to Free Speech movement that tore apart the campus, and Bell was at Columbia in 1968 when the students shut down the university.
These men felt the students were too ignorant of history not to repeat its mistakes, too intent on wrecking the universities, whereas the student leaders felt, in the words of L.A. Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg, then at Berkeley, that Glazer, whom she had idolized, and his fellow professors were "control freaks" who wouldn't take the students seriously.
Even though initially sympathetic to the Students for a Democratic Society movement, Howe says Tom Hayden "had a strong manipulative streak. We could see the commissar in him." Bell dismisses Hayden, long a California state senator, as "the Richard Nixon of the left." Hayden in turn accuses them of a "paternalism beyond Abraham."
The advent of the '90s saw Howe holding steadfast to democratic socialism as a vision and goal while Kristol had long since traveled to the right, decrying the failure of liberalism. His old friends regard him with dismay, none more so than Howe, who regarded him as a "political enemy. . . . I wish him a long life--and many political failures."
But Howe himself was not to have a much longer life, dying suddenly in 1993 at the age of 72, which gives "Arguing the World" its unexpected and poignant coda. "Arguing the World" is yet another example of a documentarian getting to his key people just in the nick of time. Indeed, since the film's completion, Diana Trilling, who provides occasional acerbic, patrician commentary throughout, has died. Trilling was one of the few women among the New York intellectuals, and she deserves the last word on them: "Unless a man in the intellectual community was bent on sexual conquest he was never interested in women."
Arguing the World, 1998. Unrated. A First Run Features presentation of a Riverside Film production in association with Thirteen/WNET and with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Producer-director Joseph Dorman. Cinematographers Peter Brownscombe, Barrin Bonet, Wayne de la Roche, Boyd Estus. Editor Jonathan Oppenheim. Music Adam Guettel. Narrator Alan Rosenberg. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun